Vol.3, Iss.13: Clockwork Orange
A piece of orange paper that links a coach to his players, as they continue to overwhelm opponents in the clutch.
And Here We Go…..
With the Suns record breaking regular season drawing to a close, it only felt right to bring one more Newsletter Issue to you before the post season arrives. If you’ve followed along all season, thanks for all your support. Those of you who’ve been around even longer, a huge shout out to you. And if you are new here, please feel free to join everyone else by hitting that little button below. Welcome aboard!
Lights, Camera, Action…..
39.7487° N, 105.0076° W - It’s a cold March night in the Southwest of the United States, where the hometown Denver Nuggets have pulled within 5 points of the visiting Phoenix Suns.
Cameron Payne picks himself off the hardwood floor after drawing an offensive foul, with his eyes gazing in the direction of his head coach. Deep in thought, Monty Williams is doing his best NFL offensive coordinator impression from the sidelines as he scans through an unfurled piece of orange paper held between his hands.
Just as he identifies the play that tickles his fancy, Williams now morphs into an MLB manager emerging from the dugout. There’s a tap of his left elbow with his right palm, followed by an additional hand signal in quick succession. Finally, Monty points his index finger toward Payne with a clear direction. The play has been called.
Chris Paul has returned from injury but sits nestled between the assistant coaches on the bench. Payne is instead tasked with setting up what has just been requested by his coach. Just as CP15 had in 11 of the previous 12 games during CP3’s absence, the Suns reserve PG dribbles the ball into the front court with 4:40 remaining on the clock.
It’s 'Clutch Time'.
37.8136° S, 144.9631° E - On the other side of the world, a whole different day has already begun in the future. Instead of a night sky outside, the sun is still shining. It’s certainly warmer than where the basketball is currently being played.
As I tune in, there is absolutely nothing paradoxical about the way the Phoenix Suns execute off Payne’s initial pass. Deandre Ayton rolls with purpose. Devin Booker curls off a screen before pump-faking into the perfect read. Mikal Bridges pops out to take & make the open shot. All while Jae Crowder spaces.
Each player a key cog within a well-oiled machine. It’s clockwork.
And yet, amidst all the fist pumps & chest bumps my eyes begin to wander back towards the sideline. Honed in on the source of all the beauty. That mysterious piece of paper. Now back in its more regular position, folded in half & held in Monty Williams’ left hand. And always in the customary colour. It’s orange.
I begin to wonder - what goes into the Suns excellence 'in the clutch' & do we too often overlook Monty’s role in just how smooth it all looks with less than 5 minutes on the clock & the game within 5 points? Well, there’s only one way to find out!
So in between watching all 216 Suns clutch possessions from the current 21/22 NBA season, I am also scouring the internet for any & all traces of Coach’s favourite game day accessory.
Pick Your Poison
33.4457° N, 112.0712° W - No longer in the future, I have instead found myself warped back in time. It’s the Suns 19/20 season, the Downtown Phoenix Arena home is still called Talking Stick & Williams is coaching in a suit! There it is - Clockwork Orange.
Somewhere on that peculiar piece of orange paper, there is no doubt a section reserved for the simplest of NBA plays - the 'Pick & Roll'. Paul walks his defender down the court like an unsuspecting victim being led into a trap, with Ayton the monster in waiting ready to pounce on their prey. Suns fans have surely enjoyed rekindling a relationship with this action, like an old school friend you once spent every day with before they disappeared for a few years.
The Pick & Roll is an old school friend of Monty & the crew too. Simple, yet effective. Versatile too! Run it high, on the sideline or with an empty corner. All three at once, if you feel like it. This season, the Phoenix Suns have called upon a variation of the two-man game in over a quarter of their clutch time possessions (56 out of 216). Overall, that choice has resulted in a bucket 55% of the time. A poisonous play.
When the defense stays home on the other 3 Suns though, it’s an almost certain death wish. Combined this season, Paul & Ayton score on 72.2% of chances when either take a shot after running the Pick & Roll.
Dragged To Death
28.3772° N, 81.5707° W - Next stop on our time traveling adventure - 'The Bubble'. Still the 19/20 NBA season but Walt Disney Resort was now home. Monty no longer had to coach in a suit, but fashion wasn’t the statement he had in mind anyway. You know what hadn’t been removed? That’s right, still there - Clockwork Orange.
Once a Ricky Rubio staple - you are now more inclined to see Chris Paul push the ball out two steps in front & clap his two palms together before recovering his dribble. 'Double Drag' sees Paul mosey toward his favourite spot on the court, summoning two players with his signal to set back-to-back screens. One player might pop, the other will likely roll. Just enough confusion for the Point God to work his magic.
Typically, Double Drag is two bigs meeting the PG with dual screens just after passing the timeline in transition or in very early offense. But this Suns team is anything but conventional, so they of course throw different variations at their opponent & aren’t scared to use it in half court settings either.
If there’s a play that has 'My Secret Weapon' scribbled next to it on Monty’s mini playbook, it’s definitely DD. Although called upon sparingly (13 times) during clutch situations this season, when the Suns give CP3 consecutive screens to work with they score 77% of the time. One worth watching for!
Snap Into Action
33.5113° N, 111.9875° W - It’s the 20/21 preseason now, with Phoenix unveiling their new practice facility - the Verizon 5G Performance Center. Ask any Suns media member & they will tell you, Monty even ensures his sidekick is by his side during practice & shoot-around. Always! Yep, Clockwork Orange is never too far.
When you run plays with the elite execution of the current Suns, that doesn’t just happen by chance. Countless hours are spent on the practice court getting every last detail down to a fine art. 'Snap' is the epitome of Suns basketball. By taking the standard Pick & Roll & throwing in a little Spanish flavour for good measure.
Look on Monty’s sheet for *Break In Case Of Emergency* plays & you will find Snap. The 'Spain Pick & Roll' is Phoenix’s agent of chaos. The second back screen often putting defenders through a blender, time after time. For this reason, it has become the Suns 'go to' play in clutch situations (29 times) & run more than any other action.
The true beauty of this set is that despite it involving 3 main characters, everyone on the court becomes a live threat. The driving ball-handler, the rolling big & the popping shooter are the primary options but two shooters camp out in the corners just begging their defenders to help off them. Given a deep shot is often the result, it’s incredible that the Suns currently go at 65.5% efficiency with this action when the pressure is at its highest.
Two Fists Up
43.0451° N, 87.9174° W - Fast forward to Phoenix arriving in Milwaukee with a 2-0 series lead in the NBA Finals. The story of Game 2 is Monty’s inspiring speech to Ayton, right before the Suns big man helps secure the W. Watch it back & you’ll see Williams grasping a familiar item while looking into DA’s soul - Clockwork Orange.
The speech was memorable on many levels, but at its heart it spoke to Ayton’s important role on this team. One of regular sacrifice. As a screener, DA is often tasked with impacting the game without ever touching the ball. Take 'Fist' for example, where Deandre sets a baseline pin-down screen for Booker to curl around.
Unlike many other teams built around heliocentric stars, the Suns don’t lean heavily on isolation in the clutch. And for good reason. When forced into 37 'iso' possessions this season, Phoenix only shoot 45%. Booker is the exception, maintaining a 56% clip.
As for Paul, that number is just 36% when he sizes up a defender 1 on 1. Give the All-Star duo an action to target who they want though & the results turn back in the right direction. Like Fist, '2 Up' can often be used to place a defender alone on an island with either of the Suns two-headed snake. Combined, Phoenix is shooting 70% when Monty looks up from Clockwork Orange & holds two fingers or a fist in the air.
After The Break
41.4965° N, 81.6881° W - A trip to the All-Star Game in 21/22, was the reward for the coach(es) with the best mid-season record. Monty’s attention to detail is noted by many as his best trait, so it’s no surprise to witness Williams take Cleveland’s very own, LeBron James, through some set plays. What else should be no surprise? Clockwork Orange was of course packed in Monty’s suitcase for the trip.
At one point in time, Williams told reporters the orange sheet is where he likes to “jot down ideas & plays”. Personally, I believe that probably undersells it just a touch. Next time you catch a glimpse though, look closely for a long-armed stick figure standing with the ball in his hands at the 'Elbow'.
'ATO' or 'After Time Out' plays surely warrant some real estate on Clockwork Orange. In the clutch, Monty goes to different variations of the 'Bridges Befuddle'. Either side of the floor, off a screen, from the corner. It doesn’t seem to matter. Coach trusts Mikal to make the right read & use his physical gifts to finish off the play.
While Bridges is 3 of 5 on such plays in clutch situations this season, the Suns overall success rate on ATOs is almost near identical. It may surprise you that Monty has only called timeout before 21 of the total 208 Suns pressure shots but what shouldn’t surprise you, is the hit rate. When looking at the first offensive possession after either team calls TO, Phoenix is 20 of 33 for 60%.
Start With Stops
37.7680° N, 122.3877° W - Securing win #62 on the Warriors home-court, Phoenix is now just 1 win away from breaking the franchise record in a season. The entire game was far from pretty & the ending was no exception. The Suns won with defense & isolation buckets. Not as needed but still tucked away - trusty ol’ Clockwork Orange.
In the heat of battle, there aren’t many levers Monty can pull from his little playbook when it comes to the defensive end. Williams may switch up the Suns Pick & Roll coverage or hold 2 fists in the air to indicate a zone. Outside of that though, his faith is placed in the pre-game scouting work & trusting in his players abilities. Just quietly, that’s easy to believe in.
Phoenix always seems to have an adjustment for the team they are playing & their ability to toggle between different defensive schemes is second to none. That’s why the other side of the ball cannot be overlooked when dissecting the Suns dominance in the clutch. Opponents currently shoot 36.7% from the field against Phoenix when the game is on the line.
As of right now, the NBA’s #1 team is also the best offensive AND defensive team in clutch situations this season. Often, they feed off each-other. The Suns ability to generate stops is a major factor in their overall effectiveness on the offensive end. Phoenix have had a total of 35 transition possessions in the last 5 minutes of close games in 21/22, converting 66% of the time.
Wherever in the world this Newsletter currently finds you, I am sure you came in already aware of the Suns gaudy clutch numbers. A 33-8 record, shooting 57.9% from the field, 78 assists to 29 turnovers, +112 plus minus, 34.9 net rating, 46-0 when leading after 3 quarters & the only team with a winning record when trailing after 3 quarters. The list goes on.
But what isn’t talked about as much, is the stark contrast between the feats of this season against those of just 1 season ago. In 20/21, the Phoenix Suns resembled an average NBA team in the clutch. A 25-12 record, with a 42 FG%, 57 assists to 29 turnovers, +29 plus minus & 1.0 net rating! Mere mortals were the 13th best Suns.
The Playoffs? No better. 4 wins & 4 losses, 36.7% from the field, 6 assists & 8 turnovers, -19 plus minus with a -38.7 net rating.
What makes this all the more impressive, is the same 5 starters from those past failures are also responsible for the present greatness. In fact, Phoenix is 14-3 in the clutch this season when their usual starting 5 is healthy & shoot an even better 64%. It therefore comes as no surprise, that all 5 feature in the NBA’s top 6 clutch players.
But don’t leave out Monty in all of this. Especially when he’s still manufacturing clutch time game winners with 4 of those starters off the floor.
29.9490° N, 90.0821° W - Monty Williams & Chris Paul’s journey together began all the way back in 2011, with New Orleans. A well-documented lack of trust cited by both parties as key to their eventual downfall. But that wasn’t all that was missing.
There was no peer quite like Booker to share the offensive burden, no Crowder to help lead them into battle, nothing close to the athletic duo of Ayton/Bridges & no bench mob of Cams & slams!
Nor was there any sign of Clockwork Orange, either.
A tangible symbol to point to, when analysing the balance Monty Williams has now struck second time around with Paul. The fine line between pulling the strings of his Point Guard puppet on the fly & letting him go rogue within the flow of a close game.
It is without a doubt a huge reason for Phoenix’s utter dominance in the clutch that has been chronicled at length by many already. Hopefully for those of you reading this though, the next clutch Suns bucket will hit a little different.
Next time Book sets a back-screen allowing Paul to hit a rolling Ayton down the lane to take the lead with 3 minutes to go, perhaps you will recognise the 'Snap' of his fingers before the play. As for right after, maybe your eyes will now follow mine towards the sideline. Monty Williams placing a folded Clockwork Orange into his back pocket, as the buzzer sounds. Job done, yet again!
*All the stats in this Issue have been updated as of April 9th after the Jazz game.
**While I can speculate, only a select few truly know what Monty is looking for on that page during games. I did try to ask but currently to no avail. Perhaps one day I will write a follow up to this Newsletter that provides answers to the rest of the unknowns, including how it was key to bringing the Phoenix Suns their first ever championship.
***And if you want to watch all the above clips again uninterrupted, you can click the YouTube link below.
The next time you will hear from me, the Suns will be on their way through the Playoffs. Last season’s Finals run was great for the Newsletter, both in terms of sharing the journey with the community & also bringing more attention to my work. So, please do me a favour (well, two) & do the following:
From Phoenix, Arizona to Melbourne, Victoria - please feel free to drop in the comments section below where you will be watching from.
Whether it’s this Issue or the ones to come, please help me spread the word of the Newsletter & bring as many Suns fans on board as possible.
Oh…..just in case you haven’t yet listened to the latest podcast dedicated to Monty & his COTY candidacy, then you can catch that HERE.